Back in the newsroom, out in the streets
Dennis Chamberlin and I didn’t sleep much last night in anticipation of our first day at The Des Moines Register, which turned out better than we could imagine, not only in discovering that journalism hasn’t changed much since our time (although people’s reaction to street journalists has), but also in seeing reporters and editors putting in extra hours to get out the news across several platforms.
Again, as a former wire service reporter, that’s not news to me. It was like being back in the bureau again.
Our day began at 7:45 a.m. as we headed out on Duff Avenue, Ames, spotting a man in a yellow bird costume beckoning us to get an “early bird special” at Jiffy Lube. So naturally, we had to stop an interview Marvin Lewis, 50, originally from Chicago who says he was out early to show members of his “Young Men of Integrity” chapter that the early bird gets the job.
You can read about that national group here.
Lewis, a groundskeeper for a local properties management company, said, “I came to Ames from the inner city, Chicago, and got in so much trouble”—indeed, court records verify that; “but then I learned that it’s all about surrounding yourself with the best people. I never had that before.”
He wants to pass on that experience to youth in our hometown.
About 45 minutes later, we arrived at The Register. Managing Editor Randy Brubaker gave us a tour, temporary press passes and a parking spot. We also got Register coffee mugs, and went straight for the coffee machine, lured by the scent of burnt coffee in a pot that hasn’t been properly washed in a decade.
Then we set out to Gray’s Lake Park. We had immediate luck. We were interviewing an air traffic controller who gave us a great tip about the decline of flights into and out of Des Moines International Airport, in part due to the poor economy. (Indeed, his stats checked out with 137,000 flights in 1998 and steadily declining ones down to 96,000 in 2008 and running well below that figure for the first nine months of this year.)
After the interview, we noticed a woman sitting a few feet behind us on a park bench. We asked if she was unemployed, and she was, a registered nurse who was laid off three weeks ago after going six months from January to June without work. She gave us a great interview so that we had insight into her and others’ situation, and at first allowed us to use her name; but later, she decided she didn’t really want us to. (She says she will read this blog and perhaps reconsider, and we hope that she does.)
Another woman walked past us immediately after, and she was out of work for two years. She also wouldn’t give us her name, but said she walked around the lake every day to give her something to do. “Lots of people do it.”
We hope some of those we interviewed will allow us to use their names, but if not, we’ll quote them anonymously and interview a psychologist who can elaborate on our core question to each person today: Iowa is known for its work ethic, but what happens to Iowans when there is no work?
Then we headed out to some fast food places to see if any college-degree holders were working there. At an empty ice cream parlor, we waited for about 20 minutes before two customers came in. One was retired, but she told us the unemployed in the city could be found at Southridge Mall. Moreover, we’d also find lots of empty stores to document just how bad the economy has become on the southside of the city.
She was right. Dennis will have some spectacular shots of a huge parking lot that at best was 5 percent full at the noon hour.
Almost half the stores, excluding the anchors Target and Younkers, had few, if any, customers.
But here we found the brightest spot of the day. You’ll have to read about that in our enterprise piece. We also visited a pawn shop where a customer hours before had sold his gold teeth because the price of the gilt metal had risen to $1100 an ounce.
The biggest change for us, former street reporters, was how anxious people were when we first approached them for an interview. A few hadn’t experienced that before. Dressed in suit jackets and ties, people assumed we were detectives or evangelists. (We’re sure that Register reporters interview plenty of sources in person, but we’re not sure if they stake out sites as we did in 1970s street reporting fashion, led by intuition optimization rather than the search engine kind.)
Tomorrow I’ve got some research and follow-up interviews to do. Wednesday we’ll be meeting with a networking group, and finish up interviewing and shooting at the lake one more time.
Thursday, we file.